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Why haven’t other sports reached the heights of cricket?

On January 19, precisely a month after being bowled out for its lowest Test score of 36 against Australia, India bounced back to script one of its most memorable series triumphs. Dealing with injuries and insult in varying degrees, the squad fought gallantly to beat the odds and a full-strength opponent to retain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. The series-clinching three-wicket win at Brisbane — the first for a visiting team since 1988 — was achieved by a team without nine of the regular players who formed the playing XI in the first Test at Adelaide. This fitting finale to India’s tale of guts and glory brought with it the admiration of not only the cricket-playing nations but also sports lovers across disciplines. But why has India not been able to replicate or even remotely match the success of cricket in other sports? R. B. Ramesh and Sharath Kamal discuss this question in a conversation moderated by Rakesh Rao. Edited excerpts:

At the outset, let us have your views on this historic triumph.

R.B. Ramesh: Initially, it was very disappointing that India got all out for 36. It felt like we didn’t show enough character in a tough environment. I was very curious about how things were going to pan out in the remaining Tests. It was heartening to see the Indian players rise to the occasion after such a debacle and win the second match. The players showed a lot of grit and determination. I was impressed, both as a former player and as a coach, because I always want to understand these things at a personal level so that this information can be shared with prospective students in the future. It was very inspiring to see the manner in which the Indian team bounced back.


Sharath Kamal: For me, the biggest takeaway was that this bunch of youngsters who have done really well in Australia are ready, both physically and mentally, to take up the fight against any opposition.

For players from India, there’s been a lot of improvement in attitude over the years. Earlier, when Indian teams toured abroad, we did not fare well because of different conditions. I feel the most important reason is that we feel intimidated the moment we go to a foreign land. I don’t see that particular aspect with these new, young players. That’s probably due to the Indian Premier League where Indian players are on a par with foreign players and are treated as equals. Since the Ultimate Table Tennis league began, we are able to talk to some of the leading players in the game at a personal level. We are no longer intimidated by them, by their game or their skill. Therefore, we are able to fight against the best players in the world. There is clearly a shift in the attitude of sportspersons from India.

Hats off to what our Test team has done, especially after losing out players due to injuries. Some of the big names, including captain Virat Kohli, were not there. There were a few who were playing for India for the first time and they came out with flying colours. One didn’t feel they were nervous. I’m happy with this kind of spirit and that should be carried to other sports as well.

No doubt, over the years, the cricket board has built a structure for coaching, holding tournaments at various levels, training match officials, etc. So what prevents other sporting disciplines from following the cricket model? Is it lack of infrastructure, funding, corporate support… ?

R.B. Ramesh: If you look at our cricketing history, we did not reach the place we have reached in just a few years. When India won the 1983 World Cup, it was the first time that we as a cricketing nation became visible on the global stage and people started taking notice of us. It took a couple of decades, at least, for us to evolve and build an ecosystem from which we could produce champions.

In India, we did not play chess at the top level in the international arena for many decades after independence. We had to wait for a young Viswanathan Anand, who first became World Junior Champion and then India’s first Grandmaster. When he broke into the top 10 and later into the top five in the world, others started noticing chess. I think the ‘chess revolution’ probably started from the early 1990s. It took another 10 years for Anand to win the world championship. I remember I was 12 years old when I wanted to become a Grandmaster like Anand. That is how I came to the game. There were not many tournaments or international competitions happening in India. There was no Internet. We had chess books from which players learnt their game, but even those were not available in plenty in India. It was mostly learning by trial and error.

When we started participating in international competitions, we always had the feeling — at least I had the feeling — that we were kind of inferior to the foreign players. We felt kind of intimidated. You could say that we felt like they were superior to us and we were not good enough. This was always there at the back of my mind.

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But once we started playing more against overseas participants, we slowly began to realise that there was not a big difference between us and them. Probably, there was a lack of a chess culture here. We realised that once we trained ourselves professionally, we could compete with them at an equal level. It took a few years for us to realise this. One by one, many players from my generation and the subsequent generation started becoming Grandmasters. This inspired the subsequent generations to believe in their skills.

Sharath Kamal: As Ramesh says, it is a process and it takes a lot of time, especially as India does not have a great sporting culture. If sports has become a profession today, this has happened only after 2010. Only after we won international medals did people start to see sport as a profession. Now, we have a sports industry. Prior to that, in my younger days, when I said I play sport, people used to say, but what do you do for a living? What else do you do? We were semi-amateurs back then.

I think 2018 was a great year and we are still harping on that. I hope better years are ahead.

When I won the Commonwealth Games gold medal in 2006, it was not considered great. If table tennis came to the limelight a little, it was in 2018 when a lot of players did India proud. In the Commonwealth Games, Manika Batra caught the eye and the men’s team did well too. Later that year, we won two medals at the Asian Games. That’s when the sport came into the limelight.

Therefore, it’s very, very important that a lot of players do well. We need a lot more improvement in terms of infrastructure and technical know-how. I went to Europe to get better as a youngster and many players continue to follow that, but none of the coaches were able to follow us. That’s the reason the coaches are lagging behind.

Unlike cricket, the quality of coaches in chess and table tennis leaves a lot to be desired. After all, the role of coaches cannot be undermined when we speak of building a larger pool of talented players.

R.B. Ramesh: In the last decade or so, we have seen many Indian coaches coming up and that has added to the value of the game. It has also accelerated the process of producing champions. As a result, we don’t have to wait for foreign coaches to come and teach us basic things. We have a platform to do it ourselves. I think we have built a good platform and a larger base from where we can produce champions. I think it will still take around five to 10 years for many Indian players to reach the top 20 in the world.

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Sharath Kamal: We need to create an ecosystem where the coach is able to grow along with the player. An Indian coach will always know more than a foreign coach in terms of the upbringing of players in our society. A foreign coach can always share good technical knowledge, good technical know-how, but I think an Indian coach is the one who can actually get everything together.

In terms of infrastructure, we do have a few set-ups that are on an international level, but we need more of those kind of set-ups. If we need to do well as a country, I think we need to have a wider base of players who have access to the top level of sport. That is very, very important.

Compared to cricket, do you think the far less media attention that is given to chess and table tennis also reflects on the pace at which these sports are growing?

R.B. Ramesh: I don’t think the media has been unfair to other sports or they have been partial to cricket. It might look that way for many, but I would say the media projects what the people want projected. In that sense, it is just doing its job. It is for other sports to grow and get public attention. Obviously, media support is essential and fundamental, but for that, you need activities that can be properly promoted, you need stars who can be projected.

Let’s say our players are not doing well. Then there is not much that the media can project. The two have to go hand in hand. The players have to deliver, and the media can then project their achievements to a larger audience. I remember many younger players in the past who were given due attention when they were coming up whenever they achieved some great results. I don’t have any complaints against the media.

Sharath Kamal: We’ve got due recognition from the media. On the contrary, I feel we’ve been unfair in not giving the media the kind of regular news that it needs in terms of achievements or scaling new highs. If we are able to perform at regular intervals at the international level, then of course the media has something to write about or project. But if you’re not doing great at the international level, then there is very little that the media can do.

Do you think lack of visibility, owing to absence of live coverage of chess and table tennis tournaments, is a factor that affects a sport’s growth?

R.B. Ramesh: That was the case probably about 10 years ago. You didn’t have visuals of any of our top performances. These days, almost all the major tournaments are available live on websites. These websites have video cameras covering the players in action in real time besides providing live commentary.

Sharath Kamal: I think presentation makes everything look nice. Table tennis is a very intricate sport, involving speed and skill, all in a very small space. In India, we do not have a platform where matches involving Indians are shown. So yes, we suffer from this handicap. This is exactly where cricket remains way ahead of the rest. Matches involving India are telecast and everybody gets to follow them.

R.B. Ramesh is a former British champion, a Commonwealth champion, a Grandmaster-turned-coach, and former chief of the National Selection Committee; Sharath Kamal is a two-time Asian Games medallist, a Commonwealth Games gold medallist, and a Commonwealth champion

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Printable version | May 18, 2021 4:55:54 AM |

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